Nuances of normality

Whomever has enjoyed my company more than a few times will know I have a particular sensitivity to the adjective “normal” when used to qualify human behaviour. However, until today, I was at a loss when asked to properly explain why it grates me so much.

What makes today so different is the discovery, yesterday, by a friend and colleague, of the book Uses and Abuses of Psychology by H. J. Eysenck (ISBN 978-0140202816), lost and found at a corner in our office. I did not read this book, nor do I plan to, but I remembered today that I had found yesterday a reference to Kinsey’s studies in the middle of the book and I was thus curious to investigate.

After quickly scanning this chapter 9 before lunch, I was disappointed by the author’s lack of additional insight on the detail that had caught my attention yesterday. However, an unexpected enlightenment was awaiting me: the chapter opens with a quick and efficient review of what normality means, and I thus discovered this author had already in 1970 put the right words on the notions that were unconsciously bothering me. Here is the relevant quote:

Normality is a term which recurs with disturbing frequency in the writings of psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, and other people concerned with human behaviour. The reason for being disturbed at the use of this term is a very simple one; ‘normality’ is one of those words that may mean all things to all men. There is no one agreed definition which might serve to delineate a given segment of behaviour; instead, the term has two main and many subsidiary uses, and the same writer frequently employs it now in one sense, now in another.

Nevertheless, the concepts denoted, however poorly, by this term are so important that a brief discussion may be in order. Two main uses of the term ‘normality’ will be fairly obvious to anyone who considers the matter at all. We may mean by ‘normal’ that which characterizes the conduct of the majority of people; this we may call the statistical definition of normality. A person of normal height is one who does not deviate very far in either direction from the average. A person who is normal with respect to weight is one who is neither heavier nor lighter than the majority of other people of his own height. This usage of the term is perfectly clear, straightforward, and intelligible. It does, however, present certain difficulties when we consider certain traits such as intelligence, or beauty, or health.

Let us look at intelligence. The statistically normal person is the one whose IQ lies near the average; both the mental defective with an IQ of 60 and the genius with an IQ of 180 are ‘abnormal’ according to this definition. The statistically normal person is neither beautiful nor ugly; the good-looking girl is as much a statistical abnormality as it is a downright ugly one – perhaps even more so. This ambiguity of the term comes out strongest in relation to health. The normal person is one who has an average number of illnesses and fractures and whose life is ended by one of the more common diseases. The person who is completely healthy and lives to a ripe old age, without any kind of physical disease, would be exceedingly abnormal from this point of view.

This is not a usual method of looking at health or beauty or intelligence. We tend to substitute for the statistical norm an ideal norm. We call a person normal the more he approaches the ideal, whether it be ideally high intelligence, good looks, or uninterrupted health. But the ideal norm may be one which is statistically very infrequent, or which in actual fact is not found at all in the population examined.

Confusion between these two uses of the term is quite common, particularly with respect to mental health. When the psychoanalyst declares that no one is normal, he has in mind the ideal concept of normality. The reader, however, often attempts to understand such a remark in terms of a statistical norm and declares it to be self-contradictory and absurd. The same misunderstanding arises in many other contexts. It is only necessary to keep in mind its semantic roots in order to avoid its obvious pitfalls.

There is a third meaning of the term which has also played an important part in the development of psychology. According to this interpretation, we call normal that which we consider to be natural. Thus,w e consider it normal for the male to be dominant and the female to be submissive; we consider heterosexual attraction normal, homosexual attraction abnormal. We would hold these views even though it could be shown that in some communities, among the ancient Greeks, say, homosexuality was statistically more frequent than heterosexuality, or that among some nations, say the ancient Egyptians the women tended to be more aggressive and the males more submissive. Nor would we hold these views because we could say in any absolute sense that dominant behaviour in males was ideal or desirable. Our feeling would be rather that biologically nature has created men and women to act in certain ways and that, quite regardless of statistical or ideal norms, behaviour in accordance with these putative aims was normal and behaviour counter to these putative aims was abnormal.

The tendency to regard certain forms of conduct as natural and biologically innate is not logically absurd. It seems to be based in many cases, however, on an erroneous identification of that which is natural with that which is current in our society.

The author then proceeds to cite scientific studies that illustrate how many observed behaviours appear natural but are actually acquired, by showing how different populations with the same origin adopt different behaviours depending on their education and upbringing.

The crux of the issue, which is not mentioned explicitly in this chapter, is that most people associate a great deal of moral judgement to any divergence between observed behaviour and perceived normality. When not justified from religious beliefs, this moral value system is often motivated by an appeal to the natural. And what makes me fume and despise humanity, every time it occurs, is when someone brandishes normality without being able to consciously realize how much idealism and cultural relativity bias their perspective.